Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

Chapter 7: The Best Little Whorehouse in Maychew

LemLem Hotel, Maychew, Ethiopia…

Today we left the legends of Lalibela behind and continued our road north. It was good to have spent a couple days in one place, but now we had several suns of long hauls ahead. And there were now six of us packed into the Nissan. Melissa or Jim would take the wheel and I’d ride shotgun (riding iPod or GPS might be a more up-to-date moniker). The non-driving adult would sit in the next row of seats to keep an eye on baby Cian. The other two girls were buckled into their ejector/carseats in the back. Every other bit of space was filled with our gear. There was no need for seatbelts. If we were in an accident, nothing was going to move.

Let me just repeat that we were doing a ten-day cross-country road trip with three kids under six. In Ethiopia. Then think twice the next time you complain about loading up Carson or Meghan for a trip to Starbuck’s.

Let the record also reflect that the kids were incredibly well behaved. For the most part. And certainly given the conditions. But the threat of a tantrum detonating in the middle of everything was a constant threat. A jerry can of terrible two fuel just waiting for a random spark that was more nerve-wracking than our car winding its way up and down thousand foot cliffs.

While Mercedes and Reeve would have occasional sisterly spats, Cian would go into full-on baby Hulk mode. Her whinings built like a sonic tsunami that gradually grew to a piercing shriek of chalkboard nails being airgunned into your eardrums.

Music was the balm that soothed the savage baby. Whenever her timer seemed to be nearing zero, I’d be panically ordered to dial up some kid’s tunes on the iPod like I was Jack Bauer trying to defuse a dirty bomb. Pete Seeger’s children’s album seemed to work best. He sang of interspecies marriage, a murderous farmer’s wife whose chin dripped with groundhog entrails, people eating until their innards fatally burst and the joys of infantcide. The kids giggled and sang along with every word, but Pete’s imitation of a goose was just slightly less annoying that Cian’s shrieks.

Whereas before we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, now it seemed like we were in the middle of that. There were no other ferengi to be seen and we saw less than a dozen other vehicles all day.

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Most of the drive consisted of weaving up dirt roads to the top of some mountain pass, seeing an amazing vista stretching endlessly to the horizon, realize we’d somehow have to get through that, slowly wind our way down the other side of the pass and repeat for ten hours.

The peaks were a lot more jagged and baked under the dry heat, but they were beautiful in their starkness. Harvest was in full effect and every village seemed to be threshing wheat by beating it with sticks, walking their cattle over it or leaving it in the road for the weekly bus to drive over it.

ethiopia-wheat.jpg

Round churches painted up like merry-go-rounds sat atop hills. Ethiopian crosses bristled from their roofs, antennaes tuned to the heavens. Rockfalls greeted us around every other turn. There was…

BLAM!!!!!!!!! Psssssssssssssssssssssssssssss…

“We blew a tire!” shouted Melissa from the back.

Jim pulled over on the first level piece of land he found that offered enough time for any truck hurtling around the corner to see us.

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Once the swearing subsided, we all climbed out and looked at the tire. Fortunately, it was only flat on the bottom. But flat it was nonetheless. Then the silence hit us. We looked around and there was nothing. The cliff we were on had a great view, but it offered up no signs of civilization from this or any other century.

While Jim manhandled the spare, I distracted the girls by taking them a little ways back up the road and asked them to find the rock that popped our tire.

We had it changed in relatively short order—a three-inch gash in the tread showed where the stone had tore into it. After a brief snack break of apricots, peanut butter and Pringles, were back on our way. While it was smart foresight to have brought a full-size spare, we were now without another one. And still going down the same jagged roads with many kilometers yet to go. While we didn’t speak much of it, it raised our tension level palpably. We would need to find another spare tire somewhere along the road. At the very least, we needed to try and get the wounded wheel patched as a last ditch emergency spare.

A collective sigh of relief went out when he hit a patch of paved road and Jim stepped on the accelerator a bit more to make up for our lost time. Unfortuantely, this was also the time all the families were bringing their herds back home from grazing, so it was bumper to donkeybutt for long stretches.

Coming out of Maychew (awesomely pronounced ‘macho’), we crossed a little bridge and were stopped by a guy standing between two dented oil barrels painted with faded white Xs on them. He waved for us to stop, but our attention was on the ancient AK-47 he held in his other hand.

Melissa hopped out and went up to see what the situation was. There was lots of waving and pointing. Then Melissa’s eyebrows would bunch up like a capital W in “What?” and there’d be more pointing that was now punctuated with shrugging. Not a good sign. While we watched this pantomime unfold, villagers of all ages crowded around our vehicle to do nothing more than stare. Harmless, but annoying nonetheless. Especially since we found our way blocked.

Melissa came back to the car, her eyebrows still bunched with confusion and concern. “Apparently the road is closed for construction ten kilometers ahead.”

“For how long?” asked Jim.

“One guy says just for tonight. Another guy said a couple weeks.”

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.” he moaned. He said it in front of the kids, but they need to learn the proper time to use that word and this seemed like it was going to be one of them.

It was clear we weren’t going forward, so we retreated a few clicks to Maychew to assess our situation. We had been told there was a detour through another village to the east, but we had no ideal of how far it was and there was some question about its existence at all. The village wasn’t shown on any of our guidebook maps. Plus, it was getting dark—not a good thing given the horrible road hazards that included everything from camels to bandits to drivers who drove in the dark to conserve fuel (?). And we were without a spare tire, so if we got another flat in search of this detour, we’d probably just build a hut and start planting tef.

In the end, we decided we’d spend the night in scenic Maychew and see what information we could gather. There was a lot of truck traffic nearby, so it was likely someone would know the roads in the area.

“Why don’t we see if they have rooms here?” I suggested, pointing to the LemLem Hotel we had stopped in front of. “It doesn’t look too bad.”

Melissa sprinted in and came out followed by a young boy. “I’ve seen much much worse.” she shrugged. The boy ran alongside our vehicle and directed us around back where there was a small gated courtyard. We saw several white U.N. jeeps parked there as well and relaxed a little bit. What’s good for the U.N., right?

The rooms were stark and grungy, but a quick search revealed no living beasties lurking in corners. Plus, it included such amenities as a full arm-length of toilet paper atop the tank, a bandolier of condoms in the desk drawer and a left behind pair of flip flops. Ahhh, home.

Once we got settled in, Melissa and I had the boy take us to a tire repair place. Which turned out to be a guy in a jumpsuit with an air compressor and a few tools sitting in the dirt under a blue tarp.

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Despite the primitive set-up, he quickly had the old tire off the rim and a new tube inside. He patched the gash with a rectangle of rubber from an old tube and rolled it back over to us. We tugged at the ragged rubber sticking out of the patch job and thought it was akin to spraying Bactine on a sucking chest wound, but it would have to do until we could find a replacement tire.

Back at the LemLem, the girls were letting off their pent-up energy running through the bar/restaurant area—which had a pile of unidentified animal bones lying in a corner—and coming back with handfuls of flowers and plantlife from the town square just out front.

Through broken English we were able to order some food. Given how long it took, I am convinced they ran home and had someone’s mom make it. The doro wat I had was good though. It’s like a thick spicy chickpea gravy that you scoop up with hunks of injera. The little English the friendly waitstaff did understand was ‘beer’ and ‘St. George’. And that was good enough for us as we sat quietly contemplating our options.

“I think we’re in a whorehouse.” Melissa nonchalantly mentioned.

Jim and I laughed and then looked around. There was a predominance of attractive very young female waitstaff working here. There were condoms in all of our rooms. It was located right along a major truck stop. The woman who ran the place had a definite madam-like quality about her.

“You brought your kids to an Ethiopian whorehouse.” I whispered.

“No.” said Jim. Then after a pause, “Oh Jesus.”

Later that night, we were in Jim and Melissa’s room. The kids were sleeping across the hall, so we had both the doors cracked. We were passing around the bottle of Johnny Walker and peeling some vegetables for tomorrow’s lunch when a drunken Ethiopian man came down the hall, supported by two women from downstairs. One was in some kind of flimsy nightie and the other was in what appeared to be a gas station attendent’s jumpsuit.

“Must be two-for-one night.” I quipped.

“What’s with the jumpsuit?” wondered Melissa. “What kind of kink is that? Maybe she’s the security guard.”

“Maybe that’s the Ethiopian equivalent of a hot librarian.” Jim suggested. “I just hope we don’t have to listen to noisy Ethiopian sex all night long.” He shook his head and stared with a smile at the post-coital flip-flops that had been left in their room. They were shocking pink with a picture of the Effiel Tower on them.

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In situations like this, people always ask if it was scary. It would have been years ago, but not now. Experience helps you develop a bit of a Spidey sense, but there’s also an important distinction between annoyance and danger. Things will happen that will throw you off schedule, that will aggravate you to no end and force you to improvise and make do, but they are not inherently dangerous. Plus, when you remember where you are, it’s a bit easier to tolerate some things and conditions that you wouldn’t stand for at home.

Still, it will be good to get back on track and past this detour tomorrow (We learned from several people that it did exist). The delay will seem a lot funnier in the telling than the living through. Or as Melissa said, as she tiredly leaned back against Jim’s shoulder, “This just adds some extra texture to an otherwise great trip.”

[In Our Next Chapter…Is that light the setting sun or the Ark of the Covenant?]

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